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Twitter Moves to Curb COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories With Warnings, Labels 'These warnings will inform people that the information in the Tweet conflicts with public health experts' guidance before they view it,' the company says.

By Michael Kan Edited by Frances Dodds

This story originally appeared on PC Mag

Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images via PC Mag

UPDATE 5/12/20: The warning labels will be placed on tweets from President Donald Trump that contain disputed COVID-19 information, according to Twitter. "These labels will apply to anyone sharing misleading information that meets the requirements of our policy, including world leaders," the company's head of site integrity Yoel Roth said.

Twitter's effort to tackle coronavirus misinformation is prompting the company to place labels and warning messages on tweets that contain disputed claims about the pandemic.

The change is designed to give users "additional context" to Twitter conversations swirling around the topic involving contested or misleading claims, Public Policy Director Nick Pickles said on Monday.

In March, Twitter began removing tweets that contain coronavirus misinformation. However, the policy only applies to posts that risk causing serious harm, like advising people to drink bleach to cure themselves.

An example of a warning message
Image credit: Twitter

Now the company is trying to address the heated COVID-19 debates swirling on the platform, which often point to conspiracy theories. The same posts can also cast doubt on the need to practice social distancing or wear a mask. In response, Twitter plans on placing a warning message over tweets that contain disputed coronavirus information the company deems "severe."

"These warnings will inform people that the information in the Tweet conflicts with public health experts' guidance before they view it," the company said in a blog post. Most importantly, the warning messages will also cover up the tweet from view unless the user clicks through it.

An example of a labeled message
Image credit: Twitter

On tweets that only contain coronavirus misinformation found to be "moderately" harmful, the company is going to place a label under the content that says "Get the facts about COVID-19" with a link to a credible source.

How Twitter will rate harm depends on the immediacy and likelihood someone believing the coronavirus claim will put them in danger, the company told PCMag. For example, a tweet that says "wearing a mask will get you sick" could easily be adopted, and put people at risk. A tweet that says "COVID came from a lab in China," on the other hand, poses no immediate risk to causing harm.

Twitter's rubric on flagging the messages
Image credit: Twitter

What specific topics or conspiracy theories will get flagged with a label or warning message wasn't spelled out. But as an example, Twitter told PCMag it will place the warnings on tweets that say "getting a flu shot may increase your susceptibility to COVID," a debunked claim that's been growing in circulation on social media, particularly among anti-vaccination supporters.

Still, Twitter says it will take no action on tweets that contain "unverified" COVID-19 claims. So the company may be slow to respond to new coronavirus debates peddling misinformation that emerge on the platform.

Twitter indicated it's going to rely on automated content moderating systems and "trusted partners"' to help it identify the problematic tweets. But the larger question is whether the approach will work. So far, the pandemic is showing coronavirus misinformation can quickly go viral on social media before it's taken down. Last week, a video called "Plandemic," which at one point says "wearing the mask literally activates your own virus," managed to get millions of views on YouTube and Facebook prior to its removal.

Michael Kan


Michael has been a PCMag reporter since October 2017. He previously covered tech news in China from 2010 to 2015, before moving to San Francisco to write about cybersecurity.

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